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Richard Benyon MP
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|Westminster Diary 13th May 2013||Marine Conservation – the facts 2nd April|
The Queen opened Parliament last week. A fantastic feast of colour, pomp and flummery. Like all state occasions it was minute perfect. It makes me think that we should really get the Garrison Sergeant Major to run Network Rail. Fulfilling a 350 year tradition the Commons showed its independence from the Monarchy by slamming the door in the face of Black Rod when he came to summon us to the House of Lords to hear the Queens Speech. While the pageantry was being displayed in the Palace of Westminster one of my colleagues, a whip called Greg Knight, was at Buckingham Palace as a hostage. This tradition goes back to a time when Monarchs wanted to ensure that no funny business went on while they were in Parliament. He tells me it was a very civilised hostage taking. He was given a newspaper and a gin and tonic.
The Speech sets out the Government’s priorities for the coming year. It includes a Water Bill which I will have to steer through Parliament. It seeks to improve and reform our water industry to make it more resilient to a changing climate and to the demands of a growing population. About half an hour after the Queen left Parliament I was addressing a gathering of major energy and water using companies about what the Bill meant for them and how it will help them to spend less on the water they use.
It was frustrating that Ministerial business kept me in London until late on Thursday. There was a Newbury Town Council by-election in Victoria Ward. This was one of the Liberal Democrat’s safest areas but we just failed to win it by a whisker. Another 24 votes and we would have triumphed. We had two great candidates who fought a good campaign and so nearly pulled off a fantastic win.
On Saturday I attended the opening concert of this year’s Newbury Spring Festival. This is the 35th year of this superb festival of music and the arts. A great launch with the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra nearly lifting the roof off St Nicolas’ Church.
I have invested many years of hard work (starting long before I became a Minister) to see meaningful marine conservation introduced into UK waters. I am on the side of those who want good evidenced based decisions that protect our seas for the future.
It is vital that Ministers are informed in their decisions by independent scientific advice. The Science Advisory Panel told me that many of the 127 sites that the regional stakeholder groups came up with were very lacking in the necessary evidence. That is why I delayed the process and allocated an extra £3million from Defra's hard pressed resources, to find more evidence.
31 is a start
We are now able to designate 31 sites, subject to the consultation which has just ended, without the whole process being buried in the courts. In our legal system, if you are going to stop people doing activities like fishing in certain areas, you have to have the necessary evidence. I just cannot sign off all 127 sites without risking falling foul of legal challenges. Also, we have to get EU backing for the many of these sites that are outside our 6 nautical mile limit. If we don't get this backing foreign trawlers could be dragging their nets through waters from which our UK fishermen are excluded. That would bring the whole project into disrepute.
Progress is being made
I may sound as if there are problems at every turn. I am actually optimistic that over the coming years we will see good progress. I confess I do get irritated by the banality of the 127 campaign because it is not recognising the realities of the situation. I am on the side of those who want as many MCZs as possible to be designated but my message to some campaign groups is, "get real". Help me rather than shouting at me. I don’t mind taking flack from some parts of the fishing industry and other socio-economic interests and I am happy to take more to get the UK to be the leader in Marine Conservation. But we need to get this right.
Part of a network
From some of the conservation lobby’s statements you could get the impression that MCZs are the “only show in town”. We already protect 23% or our seas out to 12 nm. Off the English coast alone there are 37 Special Areas of Conservation, 42 Special Protection Areas, over 300 Sites of Special Scientific Interest and many other areas closed to fishing. With 31 MCZs we will add an area three times the size of Cornwall. Not a bad story. We can feel real pride that the UK is leading the way.